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Why Aren’t Delinquencies Falling Faster?

The great news today is that mortgage delinquencies dropped to their lowest level in five years. Look at the chart (source: Bloomberg)! Doesn’t it look great?

mortdelThis was actually a bit surprising to me. With the Unemployment Rate doing about what it usually does in recoveries, and the economy adding something a bit shy of 200,000 new jobs per month, and with interest rates low and housing prices rising, you would think that delinquencies would have improved much more than they have.

Pretty much all of the delinquency data looks the same way. Here is a chart of new foreclosure actions as a (seasonally-adjusted) percentage of total loans.

foreclosurestartedWhile well off its highs, this would have been a record level just a few years ago.

Is this a symptom of the “part-time America” phenomenon, in which all of these new jobs are being generated as part-time work, so that the improvement in the lot of the average worker is not paralleling the improvement in the jobs or unemployment rate numbers? (I’m not disputing that such a phenomenon exists; in fact I think it does. I am asking whether this is a symptom of that, or if there is another cause?) In any event, it isn’t a very good sign, and is one reason that even once QE ends, the Fed will endeavor to keep rates low for a very long time.

By the way, it also makes me wonder whether the celebrated move of institutional investors into the private residential real estate market is having a smaller effect than many people think it is. If there were big players looking to buy bank REO on the offered side, then wouldn’t you think banks would be accelerating foreclosures and that the delinquencies would be dropping faster (as homeowners either get into the foreclosure process, whereupon they aren’t in the delinquency stats, or get serious about becoming current)? I don’t know the answer.

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Here is a technical point for institutional investors in inflation-indexed bonds and/or swaps – something worth watching for.

There has been much concern in some quarters recently about the coming increase in demand for high-quality collateral to back swaps under Dodd-Frank regulations.  One way this could manifest in the inflation markets is to narrow the spread between inflation “breakevens” and inflation swaps. As the chart below (Source: Enduring Investments) illustrates, the inflation swaps curve is always above the “breakeven” curve. In theory, both curves should be measuring the same thing: aggregate inflation expectations over some period.beivszcAnd, in fact, they do. But while the inflation swaps market is a relatively-pure measure of inflation expectations, breakevens have some idiosyncrasies that make them less useful for this purpose. Predominant among these idiosyncrasies is the fact that nominal Treasury bonds act in the market as if they are very, very good collateral and so often trade at “special” financing rates. That is, when you buy a Treasury bond you not only buy a stream of cash flows, but you pay a little extra for it since you can borrow against it at attractive rates sometimes (if you are an investor who does not utilize the bonds for collateral, then you are paying for this value for no reason). However, TIPS are much more likely to be “general” collateral, and to offer no special financing advantage. There is no fundamental reason for this: TIPS are Treasuries, and are just as valuable as collateral to post as margin as are nominal Treasuries. There just isn’t a deep short base, and the main owners of TIPS are inflation-linked bond funds that actively repo them out so that they are rarely in short supply. It is unusual, although no longer unprecedented, to see a TIPS issue trade special.

The consequence of this is that Treasury yields are lower than they would otherwise be, by the amount of the “specialness option,” and TIPS yields are not affected by the same phenomenon. Therefore, breakevens are lower than they would otherwise be.

If, in fact, there becomes a shortage of “good” collateral to use to post as swaps margin, one place I would expect that to show up would be in the TIPS market. I would expect that TIPS issues would begin to go on special more-frequently, and to start to behave like the good collateral they are. The consequence of that would be to cause TIPS yields to decline relative to nominal yields as they gain the “specialness option,”, and for breakevens to rise towards inflation swap levels. (As an aside, that would also cause TIPS asset swaps to richen of course).

A long time ago, I summarized this argument here,[1] and a slightly more-rigorous draft of a paper is here.[2]

As I said, this is a technical point and not something the non-institutional investor needs to worry about.


[1] I am bound to include this notice with any online use of the article: “This article was originally published in The Euromoney Derivatives & Risk Management Handbook 2008/09. For further information, please visit www.euromoney-yearbooks.com/handbooks.”

[2] Frankly, I need to update this paper and get it published, but the last time I submitted it I had one referee tell me “this is wrong” and the second referee said “this is obvious” so I decided in frustration to let it drift.

The Disturbing Evolution of Central Banking

August 7, 2013 7 comments

One of the more disturbing meta-trends in markets these days is the direction the evolution of central banking seems to be taking.

I have written before (and pointed to others, including within the Fed, who have written before[1] ) about the disturbing lack of attention being paid in the discussion and execution of monetary policy to anything that remotely resembles money. Whether we have to be concerned about money growth in the short- and medium-terms, ultimately, will depend on what happens to the velocity of money, and on how rapidly the central bank responds to any increase in money velocity. But there are trends that could be much more deleterious in the long run as the fundamental nature of central banking seems to be changing.

Today the Bank of England released its Quarterly Inflation Report, in which it introduced an “Evans Rule” construction to guide its monetary policy looking forward. Specifically, the BoE pledged not to reduce asset purchases until unemployment dropped below 7% (although Mark Carney in the news conference verbally confused reducing asset purchases with raising interest rates), unless:

“in the MPC’s view, CPI inflation 18 to 24 months ahead is more likely than not to be below 2.5 percent; secondly, if medium-term inflation expectations remain sufficiently well anchored; and, thirdly, the Financial Policy Committee has not judged the stance of monetary policy — has not judged — pardon me — the Financial Policy Committee has not judged that the stance of monetary policy poses a significant threat to financial stability, a threat that cannot otherwise be contained through the considerable supervisory and regulatory policy tools of various authorities.”

This is quite considerably parallel to the FOMC’s own rule, and seems to be the “current thinking” among central bankers. But in this particular case, the emperor’s nakedness is revealed: not only is inflation in the UK already above the 2.5% target, at 2.9% and rising from the lows around 2.2% last year, but the inflation swaps market doesn’t contemplate any decline in that inflation rate for the full length of the curve. Not that the swaps market is necessarily correct…but I’ll take a market-based forecast over an economist consensus, any day of the week.

So, for all intents and purposes, while the BOE is saying that inflation remains their primary target, Carney is saying (as my friend Andy the fxpoet put it today) “…the BOE’s inflation mandate was really quite flexible. In other words, he doesn’t really care about it at all.”

Along with this, consider that the candidates which have so far been mooted as possible replacements for Bernanke at the US Fed are all various shades of dovish.

Here, then, we see the possible long-term repercussions of the 2008 crisis and the weak recovery on the whole landscape of monetary policy going forward for many years. In some sense, perhaps it is a natural response to the failure or monetary policy to “get growth going,” although as I never tire of pointing out monetary policy isn’t supposed to have a big impact on growth. So, the institutions are evolving to be even more dovish.

At one time, I thought it would happen the other way. I figured that, since the ultimate outcome of this monetary policy experiment is clearly going to be higher inflation, the reaction would be to put hawkish central bankers in charge for many years. But as it turns out, the economic cycle actually exceeded the institutional cycle in duration. In other words, institutions usually evolve so slowly that they tend not to evolve in ways that truly hurt them, since the implications of their evolution become apparent more quickly than further evolution can kick in and compound the problem. In this case, the monetary response to the crisis, and the aftermath, has taken so long – it’s only half over, since rates have gone down but not returned to normal – that the institutions in question are evolving with only half of the episode complete. That’s pretty unusual!

And it is pretty bad. Not only are central banks evolving to become ever-more-dovish right exactly at the time when they need to be guarding ever-more-diligently against rising inflation as rates and hence money velocity turn higher, but they are also becoming less independent at the same time. A reader sent me a link to an article by Philadelphia Fed President Plosser, who points out that the boundaries between fiscal and monetary policy are becoming dangerously blurred. It is somewhat comforting that some policymakers perceive this and are on guard against it, but so far they seem ineffectual in preventing the disturbing evolution of central banking.


[1] Consider reading almost anything by Daniel L. Thornton at the St. Louis Fed; his perspective is summed up in the opening sentence of his 2012 paper entitled “Why Money Matters, and Interest Rates Don’t,”  which reads “Today ‘monetary policy’ should be more aptly named ‘interest rate policy’ because policymakers pay virtually no attention to money.”

Sweet And Sour

August 1, 2013 6 comments

Yes, I understand that it is an absolute blast to be long stocks when they are ripping higher. Everyone has fun, everyone feels wealthy, and all it took was for the Fed to defer a statement on the taper plan for at least a couple of months. For equity folks, that was equivalent to sounding the “all clear” signal to keep the party going for another couple of months. Add to that great news the fact that the ISM manufacturing index unexpectedly leapt today to two-year highs (see chart, source Bloomberg, below), and you have the possibility of good growth, with a supportive Fed. It isn’t that surprising that in the short term the equity folks are happy and the bond folks are a bit concerned.

ism

But the worst threat to stocks isn’t the taper, it isn’t an incipient slowdown in China, and it isn’t the fact that margins appear to be compressing. It’s that they will, some day, face competition for investment dollars from interest rates, commodities, real estate, and all of those other things that haven’t been exciting to invest in for a while.

Ten-year interest rates at 2.70% are not an exciting investment, but they are definitely more exciting than 1.60% rates were. However, you don’t really need to think about whether marginal investment dollars will flow to bonds since rates are 110bps higher now. You know that, no matter what the yield, more investment dollars are going to be flowing to fixed income going forward.

How do we know this? We know it because the Fed isn’t going to be buying $85bln per month, at some point in the not-too-distant future. So we know that, even if the Fed doesn’t sell, the bond market will be soaking up another $85bln of investment dollars compared to what it has been doing during QE3. And those dollars will need to come from somewhere. After all, this is just the ‘portfolio balance channel’ in reverse. The Fed pushed risky markets higher by buying all the safe stuff, so as to force investors to move out the risk spectrum. By taking away the “safe” alternatives, in other words, the Fed substituted for “animal spirits” in the market. (I discussed and illustrated this back in January.)

The opposite also occurs, though. When the Fed steps out, some investors will buy those “safer” investments at the higher yields where those markets clear. Those investors will be coming out of stocks, mainly. By substituting for animal spirits, the Fed pushed the stock market higher when investors didn’t feel much like pushing it there. And, once they start to taper that policy, they need investors with real animal spirits to step in and take risky positions in stocks because they want to.

The head-scratcher for me is, why would I want to take a risky position in stocks now, when interest rates and in particular real interest rates, are higher…if I didn’t want to take that position before? Does growth suddenly look that much better?

I ought to reiterate here that I still think a bond rally is due, despite today’s shellacking in a fairly illiquid-seeming market. I will change that view if 10-year yields rise another 5-10bps, however. I frankly think that while Bernanke likely wants to take the first step towards tapering while he is still Chairman – since it’s the polite thing to do to take the riskiest step of unwinding his policy before the next Chairman is forced to do it – I doubt he wants to get so far down the tapering road that the next Chairman feels locked in to a certain course of policy. So I suspect we will not see as much tapering this year as the market expects. Investors clearly thought we would get some indication about tapering at this meeting, and we didn’t. Bond folks know we will, eventually. Equity folks also know we will, but they all think they can get out as soon as the Fed gives the signal.

The problem, of course, is that some investors won’t wait for the explicit signal. To be fair, it has been a losing trade to be early on the Fed taper story, but that just means the ultimate comeuppance is going to be worse.

There is a ton of data due out on Friday, but my attention will not be on the Payrolls figure (Consensus: 185k). It is perhaps frightening to think about this, but Payrolls in the neighborhood of 200k is about all that we can expect. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows the BLS Nonfarm Payrolls statistics along with a 24-month moving average. Ignore the swings from month to month. Instead, notice that in the expansion in the mid-2000s the 2-year average never got above 200k, and even in the robust expansion of the late 1990s the average was only about 250k (and we’re not about to have a robust expansion any time soon!). So, whether you like it or not, 200k per month is about all you’re going to get.

payroll2y

The Unemployment Rate is expected to decline back to 7.5% after rising to 7.6% last month. And again, here, the rate of decline in the Unemployment Rate is about as fast as you’re going to get it (see chart below, source Bloomberg). In fact, if anything the decline in the ‘Rate is slightly faster than in recoveries past, although as has been well documented the unemployment rate is much higher if you discount the increased prevalence in this recovery of part-time work.

usurtotSo, on growth the sad truth is that we have been waiting for economic improvement, but none is coming. This is about as good as it is likely to get, economically speaking (at least, in terms of the pace of improvement, though with time this will pull the Unemployment Rate gradually lower).

Indeed, much faster growth would likely incline the Fed to taper faster, and even to consider additional tightening measures. And much slower growth would probably dampen the rather ebullient earnings estimates of the sell-side analysts. The dividend yield is less than 2% with inflation-linked bonds paying around 0.5%. So I won’t be looking at the numbers very closely. We are already in the sweet spot. What I am going to be looking for, tomorrow and going forward, is any sign that investors are getting a sour taste.

Is A Bond Rally Due?

July 29, 2013 1 comment

As we head into a very busy week of economic data, the bond market remains drippy with the 10-year yield up to 2.59%. (Just writing that makes me laugh. Who would have thought, only a few years ago, that 2.59% was a high-ish yield?)

How we got here, from the ultra-low levels of the last two years, is well-traveled territory. The Fed’s swing from “QE-infinity” to “someday, maybe, we might not buy as many bonds” helped trigger a run for the exits, and then negative convexity inflection points kept the rout going for a long time. Most lately, the threat of muni bond convexity has been looming as the next big concern.

But my message today is actually one of good cheer. The worst of the bond selloff was now more than three weeks ago, without a further low being established. In my experience, convexity-inspired selloffs typically end not with a sharp rebound but with a sideways trade as “trapped” long positions gradually work their way out and buyers start to nibble. But it remains a buyer’s market for several weeks, at least.

We are getting far enough along in that process that I suspect we have a rally due. This has nothing to do with any economic data coming up. There is enough data coming this week, from Consumer Confidence to Payrolls to GDP to the Fed statement, that both bulls and bears will be able to find something to point to. And I am not pointing to technicals, exactly. I am just saying that markets rarely move in a straight line, and even bear markets – such as the one I think we have now entered, in bonds – have nice rallies from time to time.

But here’s a reason to expect this to happen relatively soon. The chart below is a neat “seasonal heat map” chart from Bloomberg showing the monthly yield change for the last 10 years and the average monthly change on the top line.

heatmapFor a long time, I have been following the rule of thumb I learned as a mere babe in the bond market, and that’s that the best time of the year to buy bonds is the first few days of September. From at least the late 1970s until today, September until mid-October has been the strongest seasonal period of the year (not every year, but with enough consistency that you wanted to avoid being short in September). But the heat map above shows that this tendency may have shifted. The month that has seen the best average bond market performance over the last decade has been August, with yields falling an average of 22bps with rallies in 8 of the last 10 years. If we were sitting with 10-year yields at 1.59%, I would be less interested in this observation, but at 2.59% I am looking for the counter-trade.

To be sure, yields in the big picture are headed higher, not lower. But I am looking for signs that the recent selloff has over-discounted the immediate threat of ebbing Federal Reserve purchases. And I don’t expect growth to suddenly leap forward here, either.

As an aside, 10-year TIPS yields have also experienced one of their best months in August, with the other clear positive month being January. But, because nominal yields have been so strong, August has been the worst month for breakevens, with 10-year breakevens falling 10bps on average over the last ten years. No other month has seen breakevens decline as much as 6bps, on average.

Now, although I am a bond bear in the big picture, I don’t think that the housing market is doomed because interest rates will go up one or two or three percent. I am fascinated by how many analysts seem to think that unless 10-year rates are below 3%, the housing market will collapse. I argued about six weeks ago that higher mortgage rates should not impact sales of homes very much as long as the interest rate is less than the expected capital gain the homeowner expects to make on the home. (Higher rates will, however, cut fairly quickly into speculative building activity, which is much more rates-sensitive). And here is another reason not to worry too much about the housing market. A story in Bloomberg last week says that adjustable-rate mortgages are booming again, with mortgagees taking them out at the highest pace since 2008. Faced with higher rates, and a Fed with is not likely to raise short rates for a long while – as they have taken pains to keep reminding us – homebuyers have rationally decided to take the cheaper money and let the future refinancing take care of itself.

Whether that is sowing the seeds of a future debacle I will leave to other pundits to debate. From my perspective, the important point is that higher rates are not likely to slow home sales, or the recent rise in home prices, very much…unless they get a lot higher.

You Can’t Jawbone a Bungee Jump

July 12, 2013 4 comments

Incredible to me, as well as to many others I am sure, is the fact that the words of one guy, Chairman Bernanke, who is leaving office soon, carries more weight in the market than all of the actual news that we see from day to day.

Today, France’s sovereign rating was lowered by S&P to AA+ from AAA. This is more significant than it sounds, since it means that none of the European “bailout” institutions can feasibly carry a AAA rating any more unless Germany and the Netherlands want to guarantee the whole thing. (They don’t.) In a humorous note, the French Finance Minister said that the country remains committed to restoring growth, lowering deficits, and adding jobs. Hmmm. One of these three doesn’t seem to belong in a statement about restoring the credit of the nation. How does adding jobs – stimulus, that is – help the situation? It was a strange statement.

Portugal’s situation is worsening again as President Silva is insisting on a broader “unity” government in which all parties participate in the government (and take the heat for austerity measures). Not all of the other parties agree; in particular the Socialists are demanding new elections, while declaring “we must abandon the politics of austerity, and renegotiate the terms of our adjustment programme.” In this dust-up, the more extreme elements of the political sphere in Portugal are calling for debt repudiation. Portuguese bond yields (10y) are back up to 7.35%, which is well above the 5.20% lows from May although also a far cry from the 16% levels in the teeth of the crisis early last year (see chart, source Bloomberg).

porto10

Philadelphia Fed President Plosser today said in a speech that the Fed should start exiting from the asset purchase program in September, and completely cease buying bonds by the end of the year. He is concerned about causing another housing boom (too late!), and thinks the costs outweigh the further benefits. He is right, and bonds took some brief grief before investors remembered that (a) he’s not the Chairman, who has the only vote that matters, and (b) he’s not even an FOMC voter this year.

None of this – not France, not Portugal, not Plosser – rattled the U.S. equity market in the slightest, because Bernanke has pledged to keep the taps running as long as possible, tapering slowly, and then maintaining easy policy for a long time. So investors are delighted to see stocks at all-time (nominal) price highs with nearly a 24 Shiller P/E. At these levels, the expected real total return for the next decade from the stock market is less than 1.75% per annum…with 10-year TIPS yielding 0.50%.

So does the continued presence of easy money from the Fed warrant exceptional risk-taking and valuation in equities? It seems to me that it does not. Removing QE is, of course, tightening relative to the baseline of current policy. Policy may remain absolutely easy, but it is going to be relatively tighter…and the direction of interest rates, not merely their level, matters to investors. Of course, Fed mouthpieces clearly want to suggest that “policy will remain accommodative.” Indeed it will, and it will also remain accommodative when the Fed Funds rate rises to 1%…and 2%…and 3% someday. But it will be less accommodative, or in other words: more restrictive.

The word-smithing by the Chairman in this regard is understandable, because the jawboning is an important part of policy for a central bank that is nearly impotent due to prior decisions. But it is absurd. Previously, investors were asked to stomach the “Perpetual Motion Machine” interpretation of policy: that buying bonds would push interest rates lower and increase economic activity, while selling them wouldn’t push rates higher or decrease activity (or prices in related markets). This latest tweak to the argument asks us to believe also that buying fewer bonds has the same (positive) effect as buying a lot of bonds!

Again, I completely understand why the Fed is trying to jawbone the markets to their way of thinking. But you can’t jawbone a bungee jump, and the inflection of policy here is the start of a bungee jump.

The risk here is that investors decide that the Fed is really going to be slow at removing accommodation (which I think is correct), but inflation is going to start to be problematic sooner than that. That sort of attitude adjustment may be closer than you think, for two reasons. First of all, the CPI report is due on Tuesday. Market expectations are for a figure lower than last month’s +0.17% rise in core inflation, and a decline in the year/year core inflation rate to +1.6% (from 1.7%) as last June’s +0.21% rolls out of the 12-month comparison. I believe there is a good chance that core comes in better than that, although it is unlikely to push the year-on-year change higher. But it could, since housing continues to accelerate and these low figures require ever-increasing drag from core goods prices. In any event, though, inflation will accelerate on a year-on-year basis in August, because the easy comparisons begin: +0.10%, +0.06%, +0.15%, +0.17%, +0.12%, and +0.12% are the monthly changes in core prices for the last six months of 2012: a 1.4% pace in aggregate. And the underlying inflation dynamics are accelerating at the same time.

The second reason that inflation expectations may begin to rise among investors soon is more pedestrian (in more ways than one): gasoline prices have recent spiked 40 cents in the futures markets, from near the lows of the year to near the highs of the year. This will pass through to retail gasoline prices over the next few weeks. If gasoline prices do not rise further from here, then no important shift in inflation perceptions will likely happen. But keep an eye on this. Enduring Investments’ sophisticated measure of “consumer inflation angst” has been at multi-decade lows for some time (see chart), but a fairly reasonable shortcut way to evaluate how consumers are feeling about inflation is to look at prices at the gas pump.

aggadjYou should note that there are two spikes on this chart. One covers the move higher from March 2001 to February 2003, a period during which stocks fell 28%. The second covers May 2007 to July 2009, covering a 35% slump in prices. (There is also a minor blip from November 2010 to September 2011, a period during which the S&P only dropped 4%.)

Of course, increasing consumer inflation angst wasn’t the only thing that was happening during those periods that helped to drive stocks down. Among other things, valuations were high. Indeed, valuations were high partly because inflation angst was so low. And one ought to consider this: if stocks decline from here in concert with rising inflation expectations, we would be able to say the same thing looking back: it isn’t only rising inflation expectations, but also high valuations and plenty of bad news to go around.

Moderate Monetary Policy: Vice Or Virtue?

July 10, 2013 4 comments

Barry Goldwater once said “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” It is one of the great quotes of the 20th century, and so I feel moderately guilty to convert it to my own selfish uses by saying that “Extremism in the defense of bad monetary policy is no virtue. And neither is moderation in the attack on inflation.”

And that, for the most part, is the story of the day.

Much of the day’s trading session was as languorous as the Bermuda-shorted walkers on Lexington Avenue in the wilting, moist heat of the New York summer. But, late in the day, the release of the minutes from the last FOMC meeting and the subsequent question-and-answer session from Chairman Bernanke roused traders and rattled markets.

The minutes themselves were filled with comments on inflation that are likely to be held up as articles of ridicule in only a few months.

The extremism of St. Louis Fed President Bullard, in defense of bad policy, summed it up: “Mr. Bullard dissented because he believed that, in light of recent low readings on inflation, the Committee should signal more strongly its willingness to defend its goal of 2 percent inflation. He pointed out that inflation had trended down since the beginning of 2012 and was now well below target.” He was not alone, as “…most participants…anticipated that [inflation] would remain below the Committee’s 2 percent objective for some time.”

If by “some time” they mean “several months,” then I suppose this will end up being right. But there is very little doubt that core inflation will be over 2% very quickly, unless some interesting data quirk provides an encore to the Medicare-induced decline in core CPI over the last six months. This is where good analysis is supposed to play a role. The chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows core CPI, along with another measure of the central tendency of inflation: the Cleveland Fed’s Median CPI.

medianandcoreNow, in this column I have written quite a bit previously about what exactly is happening to core CPI, and why we shouldn’t pay too much attention to its recent decline (in summary: it is all in core commodities and especially pharmaceutical prices, while the biggest chunk of CPI, housing, is in the process of turning higher). But the point of this chart is that the deviation in core CPI compared to median CPI should be a clue to the thoughtful analyst to look more closely at what is going on, since the median is barely moving – and remains above 2% – while the average is declining. What this tells you, statistically, is that there are a few big outliers to the downside that are skewing the core reading lower. It is upon further investigation that the observation about housing-versus-pharmaceuticals (which cause core PCE to be even lower, since core PCE exaggerates the effect of medical care while understating the importance of housing) ought to be crystal clear. You don’t have to be an inflation expert to figure that out. You just need to look at the data carefully. It takes a bit more expertise, but not a ton, to observe that the second half of the year should see core inflation rise because of easy comparisons to the year-ago period, if for no other reason.

And the Fed came to the right conclusion…

“Several transitory factors, including a one-time reduction in Medicare costs, contributed to the recent very low inflation readings. In addition, energy prices declined, and nonfuel commodity prices were soft…”

…and then butchered the forecast for higher core inflation by incorrectly attributing it:

“Most participants expected inflation to begin to move up over the coming year as economic activity strengthened…”

It’s a simple forecast (although the rise will be more than they expect it to be), and they at least got the sign of the movement in inflation right. Maybe they even got the causes right, privately, but just felt it was too hard to explain in the minutes.

But, I doubt it.

The FOMC participants are not expecting, as it also says, inflation to move above 2% (on core PCE, which would be somewhat higher on core CPI). It’s a very marginal forecast they are making here. More extremism, though, was provided by the IMF’s Chief Economist Olivier Blanchard, who said in an interview that he is “not at all worried about inflation” in the U.S., because in his view (although stated as fact) inflation can rise because of an overheated economy or people’s expectations of cost increases. People, said Blanchard, who fear a jump in prices are “plain wrong.”

What is plain wrong is that they picked a guy to be chief economist who doesn’t understand the first thing about inflation. Virtually no one who has studied the matter believes that inflation expectations cause inflation. This is because there is nothing remotely suggestive of that in the data (and, moreover, no one can figure out how having customers who are afraid of cost increases can cause a vendor in a competitive marketplace to jack up prices with no other reason). Many people believe that an “overheated economy” can cause inflation to rise, so that’s at least a more common error, but consider that that core inflation fell in the U.S. from 1995-1999, and then rose from 2000 to 2002. Consider that it fell from 2006 to 2008 with unemployment below 5% and then rose sharply in 2011 with unemployment around 9%. Given that, is it unreasonable to ask that a chief economist at least be less strident in his statement about how plain wrong everyone else is?[1]

There was some volatility on the release of the FOMC minutes, with inflation markets getting pressured modestly on the theory that the minutes were not quite as dovish as was hoped, and there was at least some fair discussion about the importance of holding down inflation. Eventually, that is. But inflation breakevens as well as commodities prices (and stocks, and bonds, etc) rallied when Chairman Bernanke took some questions after his speech in Boston. In his responses, he backed off the recent tapering signals further – really, they’ve been backpedaling so fast on this that they’re behind where they started – by saying that inflation and the state of the jobs market indicates that more Fed stimulus is needed. The fact that this comment, myopically focused on the very short run followed a speech with the grand title of “The First 100 Years of the Federal Reserve: The Policy Record, Lessons Learned, and Prospects for the Future” was an irony apparently lost on the Chairman.

But, hey, let’s face it. He’s going to be gone when the important work of policy normalization gets started. As the President said recently, he’s stayed far longer than he wanted to. Is it unreasonable to expect him to just be ‘phoning it in’ at this point? Yet his moderation is no virtue, especially if you own fixed-rate bonds or other assets that will perform poorly when inflation rises.


[1] I, on the other hand, am free to do so since I am not the Chief Economist of the IMF nor the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and moreover because no one much cares what I think. Ah, the freedom of irrelevance!

Quick Notes on the Week

June 21, 2013 10 comments

I have been quasi-vacationing this week on the Continent, and trying to follow the news and the markets. This will be a brief comment but I wanted to make a couple of quick notes:

1. I did not, and I still do not, understand why there was such a violent (and negative) reaction to the Fed’s statement and Bernanke’s suggestion that the “taper” may start later this year and end in mid-2014. There are all kinds of reasons not to freak out about that. First, it was approximately what was expected (although two weeks ago there were many who thought absurdly that the Fed would begin a taper at this meeting). Second, the taper is contingent on growth continuing to strengthen, and there are scant signs of that. Third, as Bullard showed today there is far from a consensus on whether Bernanke’s time frame is going to work out – and, while ordinarily the Fed Chairman’s vote is the only one that matters, in this case he is not going to be present for the end of the taper so what really matters is who is selected to replace him. Fourth, QE isn’t doing anything right now, except artificially depressing long Treasury yields. It is probably pressuring money supply growth, but not very much. The only thing that further QE will do is make the exit that much more difficult.

That said, the violent reactions to the Fed statement are prima facie evidence of what critics of the QE policy (me, for one) have always said: we have no idea how rates and markets will react when the Fed finishes and unwinds this policy, regardless of Bernanke’s assurances. The harsh reaction (quite a bit more than I expected, especially with such a tepid adjustment to the expected trajectory) is great evidence of how over-dependent the market is on the view that the Fed’s support makes losses extremely difficult. And, I will say again, this would be so much easier if the Fed wasn’t telegraphing everything, because then investors would have invested with much more caution. The reaction this week was partly due to the shock of actually hearing the Fed mention a date for the first time.

2. Speaking of investing with much more caution, the amazing stress in certain ETFs that has accompanied significant but not exactly dramatic moves in (for example) emerging markets should blare two huge lessons to investors. The first is that you can’t increase liquidity of a pool of assets by putting them in an ETF wrapper. A pile of illiquid securities, or securities that can become illiquid in a crisis, are not more liquid because you can get a quotation every second. An ETF consisting of emerging markets bonds is never going to be more liquid than the underlying emerging markets bonds (although it may be more granular, and there are other ETF advantages…but not liquidity). An ETF consisting of commodity futures, by contrast, will be tremendously liquid because the underlying commodity markets are tremendously liquid. The second lesson is more subtle, and that is that an ETF of less-liquid securities is, in a crisis, only as liquid as the least liquid element. If you present an ETF to me for redemption and there is 1% of it that I can’t get any bid on, then the best you’re going to get is a quote at 99% of the “fair” market price. And that is especially true these days, since dealers and market-makers are capital-constrained and can’t merely take those illiquid positions on the books.

3. There is a lot of dry tinder around in the world today, and never for a minute suppose that they are not related. Stress begets stress. Two million people protesting in Brazil are doing so partly because of economic stress. Tight money market rates in China (persistent since if the central bank adds too much liquidity it will cause the CNY to depreciate) is a partial consequence of economic stress. A return of Greece from the frying pan to the fire: economic stress. And so on. This is not a safer world for all of the QE.

4. Finally, remember that growth and inflation are not related in any meaningful way. Median home prices rose more than 15% over the last year according to a report this week, and not because of great economic results. Money velocity is rising with interest rates although we may not see the results for some months. Inflation, which got a boost in the US this week with a strong CPI report (see my brief comments here), surprised on the high side in the EU and UK. TIPS yields are at +0.56% in the 10-year sector and 10-year breakevens are at 1.92%. There is absolutely no reason to own Treasuries rather than TIPS at this point. The 10-year expected real return of stocks is now less than 1.5% per annum above 10-year TIPS, and there is absolutely no reason to own equities rather than TIPS. Are TIPS cheap on an absolute basis? No. But they are screamingly cheap on a relative basis in an environment of rising inflation (and nothing the central banks can do about it – at least those who aren’t actively trying to boost it). Long-time readers will know I have been tepid at best about TIPS for some time. But, while 0.56% isn’t ridiculously cheap (and they could still get there!), our models are already maxed out on breakeven exposure and are starting to add to outright long exposure in TIPS.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets

June 18, 2013 3 comments

The following is a summary and further explanation of my tweets following today’s CPI release:

  • core #inflation +0.167, a smidge higher than expected but basically in line. Dragged down by medical care (-0.13%).
  • Housing #inflation a solid 0.3%…this part is, as we expected, accelerating.
  • Core commodities still dragging down overall core, now -0.2% y/y while core services still 2.3%.
  • I still think Owners’ Equiv Rent will get to our year-end target but core goods not behaving. Have to lower our core CPI range to 2.5%-2.8%
  • That 2.5%-2.8% still much higher than Street. Still assumes OER continues to accelerate, and core goods drag fades. Fcast WAS 2.6-3.0.
  • Note that CPI-Housing rose at a 2.22% y/y rate, up from 1.94% last month. Highest since late ’08 early ’09. Acceleration there is happening.
  • Major #CPI groups accel: Housing, Trans, Recreation (63.9%), Decel: Food/Bev, Apparel, Med Care, Educ/Comm (32.7%)
  • Overall, IMO this CPI report is much more buoyant than expected. Core goods is flattering some ugly trends.

The important part of this CPI report is that CPI-Housing is finally turning up again, as I have been expecting it would “over the next 1-3 months.” Hands down, the rise in housing inflation (41% of overall consumption) is the greatest threat to effective price stability in the short run. Home prices are rising aggressively in many places around the country, and it is passing through to rents. Primary rents (where you rent an apartment or a home, rather than “imputed” rents) are up at 2.8% year/year, the highest level since early 2009, but not yet showing signs that it is about to go seriously vertical. Some economists are still around who will tell you that rapidly rising home prices are going to cause a decline in rents, as more rental supply comes on the market. That would be a very bizarre outcome, economically, but it is absolutely necessary that this happen if core inflation isn’t going to rise from here.

The last 7 months of this year see very easy comparisons versus last year, when CPI rose at only a 1.6% annualized pace for the May-December period. Only last June saw an increase of at least 0.20%. So, even with a fairly weak trend from here, core CPI will rise from 1.7% year/year. If each of the last 7 months of this year produces only 0.2% from core CPI, the figure will be at 2.2% by year-end. At 0.25% monthly, we’ll be over 2.5%; at 0.3% per month core CPI will be at 2.9% by year-end. So our core inflation forecast, at 2.5%-2.8%, is not terribly aggressive (and if we are right on housing inflation, it may be fairly conservative).

We have not changed our 2014 expectation that core CPI will be at least 3.0%.

Equity Returns and Inflation

June 8, 2013 5 comments

There has been a lot written in the academic literature about why equity returns and inflation seem to be inversely related. What is amazing to me is that Wall Street seems to still try to propagate the myth that equities are a good hedge for inflation (sometimes “in the long run” is added without irony), when virtually all of the academic work since 1980 revolves around explaining the fact that equity returns are bad in inflationary times – especially early in inflationary times. There is almost no debate any longer about whether equity returns are bad in inflationary times. About the strongest statement that is ever made against this hypothesis is something like Ahmed and Cardinale made in a Journal of Asset Management article in 2005,[1] that “For a long-term investor such as a pension fund, the key implication of these results is that short-term dynamics cannot be completely ignored in the belief that the stock market will turn out to be a perfect inflation hedge in the long run.” For someone looking for a refutation of the hypothesis, that is pretty small beer.

And yet, it is amazing how often I am called to defend this observation! So, since it seems I have never fully documented my view in one place, I want to refer to a handful of articles and concepts that have shaped my view about why you really don’t want to own equities when inflation is getting under way.

I will repeat a key point from above: this is not news. In the mid-1970s, several authors tackled the question about stocks and inflation, and all found essentially the same thing. My favorite summing up comes from the conclusion of an article by Zvi Bodie in the Journal of Finance:[2]

“The regression results obtained in deriving the estimates seem to indicate that, contrary to a commonly held belief among economists, the real return on equity is negatively related to both anticipated and unanticipated inflation, at least in the short run. This negative correlation leads to the surprising and somewhat disturbing conclusion that to use common stocks as a hedge against inflation one must sell them short.”

By the early 1980s this concept was fairly well accepted (something about deeply negative real returns over the course of a decade-plus probably helped with the acceptance). In a seminal work in 1981,[3] Eugene Fama suggested that the negative relationship between equity returns an inflation is actually proxying for a positive relationship between real activity and equity returns (which makes sense), but since real activity tends to be inversely related to inflation rates, this shows up as a coincidental relationship between bad equity returns and inflation. But I am not here to argue the nature of the causality. The point is that since about 1980, the main argument has been about why this happens, not whether it happens.

The reason it happens is this: while a business, in inflationary times, sees both revenues and expenses rise, and therefore reasonably expects that nominal profits should rise over time with the price level (and overall, it generally does), the indirect owner of shares in a business cares about how those earnings are discounted in the marketplace. And, over a very long history of data, we can see strong evidence that equity multiples tend to be highest when inflation is low and stable, and much lower when there is either inflation or deflation. The chart and table below represent an update I did for a presentation a couple of years ago (it doesn’t make much sense to update a table using 120 years of data, every year) illustrating this fact. The data is from Robert Shiller’s site at http://www.econ.yale.edu/~shiller/data/ie_data.xls  but I first saw the associated chart (shown below it) in Ed Easterling’s excellent (and highly-recommended) book, Unexpected Returns: Understanding Secular Stock Market Cycles. The x-axis on the chart is the market P/E; the y-axis is annual inflation with each point representing one year.

PEinflationtablePEinflationpicture

Now, it should be noted Modigliani and Cohn in 1979 argued that equity investors are making a grievous error by discounting equities differently in high-inflation and low-inflation environments. They argue that since equities are real assets, investors should be reflecting higher future earnings when they are discounting by higher nominal rates, so that the multiple of nominal earnings should not change due to inflation except for various things like tax inefficiencies and the like whose net effect is not entirely clear. Be that as it may, it has been a very consistent error, and it seems best to assume the market will be consistent in its irrationality rather than inconsistent by suddenly becoming rational.

So, if inflation picks up, then so do earnings – but only slowly. And in the meantime, a large change in the multiple attached to those (current) earnings implies that the current equity price should decline substantially when the adjustment is made to discount higher inflation. After that sharp adjustment, it may be that equity prices become decent hedges against inflation. And in fact, if multiples were particularly low now then I might argue that they had already discounted the potential inflation. But they are not – 10-year P/Es are very high right now.

In short, there is almost no evidence supporting the view that equities are a decent hedge for inflation in the short run, and some careful studies don’t even find an effect in the long run. In a thorough white paper produced by Wood Creek Capital Management,[4] George Martin breaks down equity correlations by industry and time period, and only finds a small positive correlation between Energy-related equities and inflation – and that is likely due to the fact that energy provides most of the volatility of CPI in the short-run. Among many meaningful conclusions about different asset classes, Dr. Martin concludes that equities do not offer a good short-term inflation hedge, nor a good long-term inflation hedge.

In fact, I think (especially given the current pricing of equities) the case is worse than that: equities are, as Dr. Bodie originally said in 1976, likely to hedge inflation only if you short them.


[1] “Does inflation matter for equity returns?”, Journal of Asset Management, vol 6, 4, pp. 259-273, 2005.

[2] “Common Stocks as a Hedge Against Inflation”, The Journal of Finance, Vol. 31, No. 2, Papers and Proceedings of the Thirty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the American Finance Association Dallas, Texas December 28-30, 1975 (May, 1976), pp. 459-470, Wiley, Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2326617

[3] “Stock Returns, Real Activity, Inflation, and Money”, The American Economic Review, Vol. 71, No. 4 (Sep., 1981), pp. 545-565, American Economic Association, Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1806180

[4] “The Long Horizon Benefits of Traditional and New Real Assets in the Institutional Portfolio,” Wood Creek Capital Management, February 2010. Available at http://www.babsoncapital.com/BabsonCapital/http/bcstaticfiles/Invested/WCCM_Real_Assets_White_Paper_Final.pdf.

Rough Week, but it Could Have Been Worse

June 8, 2013 2 comments

It was an interesting week. Considerable volatility in the foreign exchange markets (the dollar fell 5.5 handles from 105.50 yen to 95 yen before bouncing to 97.5 yen at week’s end) and a slide in several foreign equity markets (chiefly the Nikkei, -6.5%, but also the UK -2.6%, Italy -3.0%, Mexico, Brazil, Turkey -9%, etc) impacted the U.S. bourse at the margin but not severely. On Monday, a weak ISM helped push US stocks lower and bonds higher; but on Friday an as-expected Employment report led to a massive equity rally and sharp losses on bonds with the 10-year yield reaching a new high for the move.

The reaction from bonds isn’t terribly surprising. Bond funds are seeing near-record outflows as everyone knows that yields would not be near these levels without Fed backing, and no one wants to be the last one out. Any fear that “taper” is going to happen soon was going to send yields higher, and as I wrote on May 29th there is some risk for much higher yields.

The equity reaction on Friday is a little more confusing. Sure, the airwaves were full of news of the “better than expected” payrolls, although the combination of the May positive surprise (+12k) and the revisions to the prior two months (-12k) puts the Jobs number precisely on the consensus estimates while the Unemployment Rate rise slightly due to a rise in the participation rate. To be sure, there is nothing in the number to force the Fed to consider a “taper” with any kind of urgency, but considering that Bernanke and Dudley have already signaled that no taper is imminent, this is hardly news: the data on Friday was almost exactly as-expected.

Going forward, the market continues to face the same hurdles: higher rates mean more competition for investment dollars and will pressure equity prices. Lower unemployment implies that the current ratio of real wage growth relative to gross margins – which reflects the great power of capital right now relative to labor, with margins at record highs while real wages stagnate – will begin to shift back in favor of wages and away from capital. Higher rates also imply higher money velocity and hence, higher inflation. (See chart, source Bloomberg.)

velogt5

If 5-year rates went to, say, 2%, and M2 velocity rose to 1.732 as the regression suggests, it would represent a 12.9% rise in money velocity. If M2 merely ticks along at the current (high, but not as high as it was) rate of 6.6% growth year-on-year, and GDP grows at an optimistic 4% rate, then it implies inflation of roughly 15.7% (1.129 * 1.066 / 1.04).

There are a lot of “ifs” in that statement, and I want to make clear that I am not forecasting 15.7% inflation over the next year, or even the next two years combined. But the point is that the risks are not insignificant. It isn’t a rise of core CPI to 2.5% by year-end that is the potential problem, although stocks might not take that well. It is a rise above that, which causes rates to rise, which causes velocity to accelerate further, etcetera in a spiral that the Fed is powerless to do anything about since it must first remove $1.9 trillion in excess reserves from the banking system…

And in that sort of inflationary environment, equities would be roundly trashed. A reader asked me to expound further on my prior observations about equities and inflation, and this seems like the right place to do it. However, so as to limit the length of this article, I am posting that further discussion/article separately here.

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